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Rochester science students meet President Obama during White House visit

A group of Lincoln K-8 Choice School students, staff and others from Rochester had a surprise meeting with President Obama during lunch on Saturday at the White House. They are, from left to right, front row: Chris Pierret, Garrett Harveland, Chok Koth, Jac ONeill, Allison Schroeder, Kristen Hansen, Ellie Ekblad and Melanie Fields. Back row, left to right: Corey Dornack, Tyler Koep, Karl Clark, Bennett Robelia, Steve Ekker, Jim Sonju, President Obama, Danny Perno, Mike Gobin, Doug Fields and Megan Oswald.

It was an experience the students and teachers from Lincoln K-8 Choice School weren't expecting. And it is one they won't soon forget.

But three days after meeting President Obama in the White House situation room, the students and staff from Lincoln were still in a state of disbelief, still feeling the charge from their meeting with Obama.

"It is one of those things where you go over it in your head," said Garrett Harveland, a Lincoln eighth-grader. "My knees just started trembling. It feels like a dream."

The meeting wasn't part of the agenda. The students, teachers and Mayo Clinic researchers were in Washington, D.C., to participate in a science conference sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science .

But during a tour of the White House, the students were invited by an administration official to have lunch in the situation room. Just as the lunch was winding up, Denis McDonough, a top foreign policy adviser, poked his head in and asked, "you got one more minute?" And in walked the president.


"It's really amazing that you guys are here," seventh-grade student Kristen Hansen recalled Obama saying. "He was encouraging us to keep doing science and be teachers. 'The world needs more scientists and teachers.'"

The reaction from students and teachers ranged from poker-faced disbelief to jaw-dropping amazement. Lincoln Principal Jim Sonju said that when he saw the president enter the room, he rose from his chair with both hands on his head, as if lifting himself by his close-cropped hair.

Other reactions were just as unguarded and impulsive. Chok Koth, a Lincoln student, ran up to the Obama and hugged him, almost tackling him in the process, several students said. So excited was Koth at being in Obama's presence that he stood in the corner, bouncing up and down.

Obama started shaking hands and inquiring about their science projects.

"He was funny. He was making jokes. He was really trying to make us feel comfortable. He could see — he was trying to calm us down a little bit," said Hansen.

The president was dressed almost casually, wearing a loose-fitting navy blue thermal shirt and khaki pants. The students and teachers, by contrast, came to the White House well-dressed and polished.

To Megan Oswald, a Lincoln teacher, the experience had echoes of past, present and future tied together into single moment. Here they were in the nation's capital, a city full of history, meeting a president who was making history and talking to the country's next generation.

"It was so completely full circle," Oswald said.


The meeting lasted about 10 minutes. A Marine in charge of security of the situation room permitted the group to have one picture taken with the president.

The Lincoln students and staff have been working with Mayo researchers and Winona State University as part of a science program funded by federal stimulus dollars.

Sonju said he had been hoping to arrange a meeting with the president. McDonough, the Obama adviser who poked his head into the room, also is a childhood friend of Sonju's. And in the run-up to the trip, Sonju periodically sent McDonough updates on the work his students were doing, while hinting at his hope of a meeting with the president.

At one point, though, Sonju thought all hope of a meeting was lost. While in the situation room, he noticed a wallclock was set to West Coast time, suggesting that the president wasn't even in Washington. It ended up being a bit of misdirection.

"This entire program is about shooting for the stars," Sonju said. "We pitched the idea that (the students are) working so hard and how great it would be to meet the president."

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